Sunday, 31 October 2010

Jesus and the Centurion

This morning in church we read the story of Jesus healing the centurion's slave from Luke 7:1-10.  I found it hard to listen to the sermon because I kept being distracted by the story.  Here's what was distracting me.

This story takes place in the village of Capernaum and has three main characters - the centurion's slave, the centurion himself, and Jesus. 

The slave is the trigger for the story:

...a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die.

Other translations say that the slave "was dear to him".  There's some ambiguity here - was the slave a loved member of his household, or a valuable piece of property?  Either way, what follows in the story indicates that when Jesus is asked to heal this slave it is not seen as an act of service towards the slave, but towards the centurion himself.

This is not surprising when you think of who the centurion was.  He was a Roman army officer, roughly equivalent to a captain in our modern armies.  Not a very important man in the grand sceme of things, but if there was a Roman garrison in Capernaum he would probably have been its commander. 

This was an army of occupation, and the foreign troops would have been resented by the local people.  On the other hand, the army doubled as the police force in the Roman Empire and carried out various civil functions in what was essentially a military regime.  The centurion was an important local official, perhaps the most senior official in the village.  This makes the encounter a very delicate and politically important one.

Naturally Roman officials varied.  There was a lot of corruption in the empire and many officials used their positions ruthlessly.  However, there were also diligent, ethical officials who tried to do well.  In this story we are hearing about one of the latter sort.

The centurion could have easily sent a couple of soldiers to fetch Jesus.  However, this would have amounted to an official summons, and could even have looked like an arrest.  It would have shamed Jesus and angered his followers.  Instead, the message is courteously sent via Jewish elders.  This makes it a request, not a command.  The concrete outcome would not be much different - no-one could really refuse such a summons - but it sets up a context of mutual respect.

Reinforcing this is what the elders say.

This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.

This could indicate that the officer has some level of devotion to the Jewish God, as a gentile worshipper or perhaps just paying respect to the local god in accordance with his polytheistic world view.  On the other hand it could simply indicate that he is an enlightened governor, trying to win local cooperation by diplomacy rather than by force.  If it was the latter, it was obviously working.

And now for the bit that was distracting me the most.  Jesus agrees to go, and sets out for the centurion's house, only to be met on the way by another set of messengers, who bear the following message.

Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.... But say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I tell this one, "Go," and he goes; and that one, "Come," and he comes.  I say to my servant, "Do this," and he does it.

I think perhaps this story is so familiar that we don't notice how strange it is.  We understand what the officer is saying about himself, but what is he saying about Jesus?   He is saying that he, too, is a man who has the power of command.  But over whom?  Plainly not the disciples, because there is no suggestion that he should send one of them in his place. 

I concluded he must be referring to the army of spirits who lurk in the background of the gospels.  As Western materialists, we only notice the most obvious of them, like the story a little earlier in Luke (4:31-37) when a man possessed by an evil spirit calls out to Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue and Jesus commands the spirit to be quiet and come out of him. 

When we hear that the slave is ill, we assume he has a virus or an infection of some sort.  A first century reader would immediately conclude that he too was being attacked by an evil spirit which would need to be driven out in order to heal him.  These spirits, the centurion is saying, are under Jesus' command just as the soldiers are under his own.  It could be simply that he thinks Jesus can command this particular spirit from wherever he is.  However, a more symmetrical way of understanding the story is that just as the officer sends messengers to Jesus and he obeys, so Jesus can summon a spirit ("Come!") and then send this spirit with a command to the one oppressing the slave ("Go!") which this spirit will have no choice but to obey.

When the messengers arrive back at the centurion's house they find the slave healed.  Jesus' messenger has gone on ahead of them, delivered his command and been obeyed.  No doubt the slave would have been just as happy and grateful as his master, and both would have had their faith in Jesus confirmed. 

For myself, though, I'm reminded again of the breadth and depth of the mental gulf dividing us from the writers of the gospels.  It requires a huge effort to bridge that gap - and there is another still to go, as I try to climb back from there and ask, "What does this mean for me, in the age of the germ theory of disease?"

Friday, 29 October 2010

Lucy and the Wolves

My birthday is long gone and finally the new Richard Thompson CD that I ordered with my birthday money has arrived.  Because it's my birthday I ordered the deluxe version which includes a set of acoustic demos and I'm glad I did because to my mind a band doesn't always add much to Thompson's amazing guitar playing.  I saw him live in Brisbane a few years ago, standing alone on the stage of the Tivoli, and didn't miss the rest of the band for a moment.

I must admit though that the new album is a little patchy, and I'm getting more enjoyment out of the one that arrived earlier, Martha Tilston's Lucy and the Wolves.  I caught on to Tilston when I picked up a copy of Milkmaids and Architects in a second hand shop and couldn't understand how anyone could part with it.  If you've never heard her, listen to this beautiful performance of "Music of the Moon".  Lucy is better, if you need to make that kind of comparison.

It has a quiet, understated backing, based around her acoustic guitar or occasionally piano.  Her voice has the most beautiful timbre of any singer I've heard lately, warm, rich and expressive.  On this album, even more than the last, it hardly rises above a whisper, as if she's sitting next to you talking confidentially.

But what I love most is the songwriting.  I'm a sucker for a love song that says more than just "I love you" and this album is full of them.  She uses little scenes to draw you in - sitting in a restaurant talking to cover the discomfort of passion, passing the stuff at a party and dancing with a man who is mourning his love for Lucy, walking along the Cornish beach and visiting the hidden caves, sitting in the special chair playing a new song.  Each vignette is a tale of joy and passion and unlike Thompson it doesn't always end badly.  Here's some lines from the closer, "Wave Machine":

and when I see you, all the days before
all the truths I swore to lovers I thought I couldn't love more
well now that I've found you all this slides into a stream
I was only paddling
you are the wave machine

There's something spiritual in all this passion and its no surprise that one of the most beautiful songs on the CD is a number called "Who Turns".  Here's a bit of it for you to think about.

Lady Moon, I pull a chair to the window
and wonder what you make of it all.
Down here we've been getting tangled
strangled, snapping at the carrot that's dangled
above our heads so we don't see the fall.
But you just rise each night and case the joint.
Many, many more of us will come.
Last night I dreamt that I was dying
and it was kind of beautiful;
a homecoming to a realm I'd known before.

How long, how many more will come?
How long before we get it right?
Who, who turns the wheel?
And are we all just moons reflecting light?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Winning in Afghanistan

I've been really enjoying Australian Observer's coverage of the Afghanistan debate and other such matters.  One of the things he's highlighted is that while our politicians are talking about defeating the Taliban, the Afghani government, with the support of the US Military, is giving Taliban commanders safe conduct to attend negotiations aimed at ending their insurgency and bringing them into the political system.

It reminded me of something I learnt way back in undergraduate politics.  Democracy is not secured by the will of the majority, but by the consent of the minority. 

You can see this in our recent election dramas.  Despite the rhetoric and posturing, once Labor had secured the votes of enough independents the Liberals accepted that they were once more the Opposition.  They tried to disrupt and block, but only within the bounds of parliamentary procedure.  They kept turning up in Parliament, they debated, they sat down when the speaker told them to.  In other words, they consented to their own defeat, and stayed in the process of government.  Meanwhile the Australian military and police forces did...absolutely nothing, just as they were supposed to.

Now contrast this with the Taliban.  They have far less support than the Liberals, probably even less than the Greens.  They certainly have less support than Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate defeated by Hamid Kharzai in a 2009 election marred by widespread electoral fraud.  The difference is that Abdullah accepted his defeat and lives peacefully, if unhappily, with the resulting regime. 

The Taliban, by contrast, neither participated in those elections, nor accepted their outcome.  Instead, they devote what resources they can to disrupting the governance of the country, lauching terrorist strikes on civilian targets and raids on military ones.  They can't win, at least not while the international forces are there.  Yet while they refuse their consent, ordinary Afghanis can never live in peace, and the government of their country can never be secure. 

Hamid Kharzai knows this, and it seems that the Americans do too, although it wouldn't do for them to admit it too publicly.  The Taliban can't be trusted, their return to power would be a disaster for ordinary Afghanis (especially women) and their fanaticism poses a danger to other countries as well.  But a victory in the war will not be wiping them out militarily.  That will never happen, because they're a guerilla force based in local communities and can just go to ground.  Victory will be gaining their consent to, and participation in, an orderly democratic process, even one as flawed as the one which saw Kharzai elected.  It happened in Ireland despite decades of terrorism and bitterness.  Let's hope and pray it can happen in Afghanistan too.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Murdoch on Thatcher

Rupert Murdoch, one of Australia's most valuable exports, has recently taken his private jet to London to deliver the inaugural Baroness Thatcher Lecture.  Here's what he has to say about the woman who was British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.

My words tonight will be flavoured by those of Margaret Thatcher herself. We sometimes forget how pithy she is – how wise her thoughts, and how pertinent they remain even though she left office long ago.

And we cannot forget that she is no ideologue, but a person of pragmatism, an optimist whose optimism is founded in her faith in the individual. 

Hers is a generous spirit, a spirit based in an appreciation of personal potential and not of an impersonal ideology. As she said: "With all due respect to the drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, all men and women are not created equal, at least in regard to their characters, abilities and aptitudes."

It was that appreciation of individual aptitude and ability that made her so intolerant of the strictures of socialism. How quickly too many people have forgotten that she has not only changed Britain, but, along with Ronald Reagan, changed the world, much, much for the better.

No idealogue?  Generous spirit?  Of course he would say that.  Thatcher's approach to deregulation paved the way for Murdoch to make a killing in the UK, allowing him to drive down the wages of the workers who printed his newspapers, and to develop a very profitable and very lightly-regulated pay-tv empire.  The workers obviously thought differently, especially the coal miners who struck for a year over the downsizing of their industry before finally being forced to give in.  Not to mention Murdoch's own printing workforce who were locked out of their workplace after refusing to accept Murdoch's changes to their pay and conditions. 

Thatcher was lucky to be around at the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Meanwhile, under the guise of opposition to socialism at home she ran down Britain's public sector, privatised public assets and forced local governments to tender out the provision of basic services.  Wealthy people like Murdoch rejoiced, and continue to rejoice to this day.  As for the poor - well, they weren't created equal anyway, so what does it matter?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

I was talking with someone on the Internet about Biblical inerrancy, and said as I often do that I didn't really understand properly what the term meant.  He referred me to a document called the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

This document was produced in 1978 at a conference sponsored by a group called the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  Its 300 signatories included a number of evangelical luminaries of the time including JI Packer, Francis Schaeffer and RC Sproule.  The same group produced two more statements in succeeding years and the second, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, is a kind of follow up and explanation of the first.

The core of the statement is a set of 19 articles, each of which is framed as an affirmation of what the authors believe, followed by a denial of the position they are refuting.  It's a pithy, elegant statement written by some highly intelligent men, and it certainly helped me to understand what people mean when they are talking about inerrancy.  My conclusions are probably not what my e-friend was hoping.  If you are someone who gets angry or upset when beliefs that you hold dear are questioned or critiqued, you might want to stop reading at this point.  At least you might want to read my earlier post on the perils of bad apologetics to understand why I think this issue matters.

Without going into all 19 articles, here are what I think are its crucial points.
  • The Bible in its entirety is God's perfect message to us, with "inspiration" meaning that these are God's words, transmitted to us via humans but not in any way infected with human fallibility.
  • The Bible is correct in every affirmation it makes about any subject, not just "spiritual" subjects - to remove all doubt on this point they specifically affirm the literal truth of the creation and flood stories.
  • The authority of the Bible is not conferred on it by the Church, by church tradition or Church Councils, but is inherent in the book itself.
  • Because it is without error, there are no contradictions in the Bible, it is in perfect harmony with itself.  Later parts of the Bible may fulfill ealier parts, but not correct or contradict them.
There are a number of problems with the Chicago Statement, which I'll try to summarise briefly.
  1. It requires you to sign up to a huge piece of circular logic.  The traditional Catholic view of scripture is that its authority comes from the church - the books were written by apostles and prophets or under their authority, the canon was assembled through church practice and formally ratified by key church councils.  This position, while asking us to accept the infallibility of church tradition, at least grounds scripture in an historical process and a believing community.  By removing this grounding, the Chicago Statement leaves us with only one source of authority - the scripture itself.  Church tradition may help us to interpret scripture correctly, but it is not authoritative.  We are thus asked to believe scripture is inerrant because it says it is. 
  2. Leaving aside the circularity of the logic, if the inerrancy of scripture is to be believed solely on its own authority you would expect the Bible to contain a clear statement to this effect.  Interestingly, the Chicago Statement makes no attempt to quote or summarise what the Bible says about itself.  In my own view, the Bible's statements about its authority are far from supporting the case made by the Statement, even if they are read using its principles of interpretation.
  3. The statement appears to presume that the Bible is a book of facts and affirmations.  This is the only reason it makes sense to focus on its "inerrancy".  The picture you would get from the Chicago Statement if you had not read the Bible for yourself would be of a series of propositions, much like the statement itself, and of precise historical accounts of scrupulous factuality.  The Bible does contain some of this, but most of it is much more complex, written in a variety of genres and styles including poetry, song, allegory, poetic drama, moral fable, parable and folk tale.  The concept of inerrancy is therefore irrelevant to a large proportion of it and, even where it is relevant, more often than not it is a peripheral question.
  4. Following right along from this is the idea that the Bible is without contradiction.  This follows inevitably from the assertion of inerrancy.  The problem with this is that it forces you to read the Bible in a very superficial way - ironically given the authors' high view of scripture.  You are forced to read at the level of facts, and put the facts in order - times, places, people's names, doctrines and so forth.  A lot of energy goes into harmonising accounts which seem to be contradictory.  In the end the reader strains out a gnat and swallows a camel, lining up all the little details but missing the huge tensions in approach and intent that exist both within and between books of the Bible.
Why did this group of evangelical leaders spend so much time and energy making this statement?  When I first converted to Christianity in my teens I went to an evangelical Anglican church.  At one stage in those first few years, the evening service was turned over to watching Francis Schaeffer's film series How Should We Then Live?  My clearest memory of that series was Schaeffer on the beach drawing circles with a stick.  In each era, he said as he drew his circle, human thought was driven by a philosophical world view which made sense of what was going on and put things in their places in relation to one another.  From time to time, an old world view would be challenged and a new one would take its place.  He crossed out one circle and drew another next to it.  In our time, he said - in the in the late 20th century - something different was happening.  The old philosophical assumptions were being overturned (cross through the final circle) and being replaced by...nothing (no circle, just blank sand). 

For Schaeffer, such uncertainty and lack of meaning was a sign that civilisation was about to collapse.  The duty of the Christian was to resist such meaninglessness, and their weapon for doing so was the certainty provided by the Bible.  Schaeffer wasn't the only one who thought this way.  The Chicago Statement is part of their response.  In a post-modern, protestant world where the authority of the church, governments, teachers and traditions was up for question, they wanted to see the Bible as a bastion of certainty, as something they could rely on absolutely when everything else around them seemed to be falling apart. 

A noble attempt, with the best of motives, but at the end of the day it's still bad apologetics.

If you're interested, I've written more posts on this subject - Part 2, 3, 45 and 6.

Monday, 18 October 2010

St Mary MacKillop

The news here in Australia is full of the canonisation of the first Australian Saint, Mary MacKillop, founder of the Order of St Joseph. 

Being a Protestant, I've never quite got the whole sainthood thing.  We were taught that all of us are saints (sanctified ones) and that this comes about as a result of God's grace.  We were also taught that it's wrong to pray to anyone other than God himself - my evangelical teachers were very big on "there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ the Righteous" from 1 Timothy 2:5.

As a result I've watched the whole thing with mixed emotions - not only bafflement, but pleasure, irony and cynicism.

Pleasure because for a change we are celebrating a national hero whose life was dedicated to doing good.  Mary MacKillop was a woman whose mission was to care for poor women and children, found schools and lift people up out of poverty.  She wasn't afraid to take on the church to do so either, and was even excommunicated for a short period after refusing to back down on her stance against priests guilty of sexual abuse.  A woman ahead of her time - if only the church had listened then, it might not be in the mess it's in now.

Irony because Mary's vocation was literally self-effacing.  Women in religious orders were not only veiled, they changed their names.  Yet this deliberately self-effacing woman is now a national celebrity. 

Cynicism because one of the truly odd things about sainthood is that one of the requirements is that the saint be responsible for at least two certifiable miracles.  This is perhaps not bizarre in itself, but the bizarre bit to my mind is that there is no suggestion Mary performed these miracles while alive.  They consist of incidences where people prayed to her (or in her name, I get confused) and were healed of terminal illnesses.  Which of course raises a host of questions of which the following are just the beginning.  First of all, were these just coincidences?  If people prayed to Mary and then got better, why would we necessarily believe Mary was responsible - and not say God, or even the doctors they consulted who despite having given up hope in their treatment found that it was unexpectedly successful?  Secondly, how many people died after praying to Mary?  Surely this doesn't mean she's also a killer?

I'm happy to admire Mary as a hero of the faith.  Protestants have those too.  She persevered against mistrust and obstruction, did good in her lifetime, and founded an order which does good to this day.  But please, spare me the mediaeval mumbo jumbo.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Silly Love Songs

For some reason I've been listening to Paul McCartney's Silly Love Songs.  It's one of those songs that refuses to leave once it's in your head, even when you try to drive it out with lashings of punk rock or Pink Floyd.

I didn't like this song when it first came out in the mid-1970s.  At the time I thought this was because it was silly and superficial.  I was a very serious teenager. 

Now I think I was just too immature to appreciate it.  For a start, it's not as simple as it seems.  There's a lot going on beneath the surface.  A jaunty bass rhythm, a horn section counterpointing with lush strings, interwoven harmonies and counter-melodies.  McCartney was (and is) no fool musically.

Then the lyrics provide a joyous piece of self-satire, as well as a cheerful poke in the eye for people like his ex-mate John Lennon who seemed to take the art of pop music a lot more seriously than he did.  He asks, "why not have fun?"  Lennon always seemed to win the arguments, but McCartney made a lot more money.  Listeners voted with their wallets.

As time passes I'm also coming around more and more to McCartney's way of thinking.

You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn't so.
Seems people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that...?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Sporting Stories

Over the past week I've been watching, in a half-hearted way, the coverage of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.  Most of the world, even people in the Commonwealth, take no interest in this little colonial remnant.  Aussies love it because our athletes get to win a lot.

So why am I only half-hearted?  I think the main reason is that Australian coverage of the event is so poor.  Australian broadcasters have determined (I'm not sure by what means) that Australian audiences are only interested in watching Australian athletes.  It's not that we just get to see events where Australians are competing.  It's that we only get to see the Australians, full stop. 

For instance, an Australian, Fabrice Lapierre, won the mens long jump at these games with a jump of 8.30 metres - a full 60 centimetres shorter than Bob Beamon's 1968 effort.  Was this a surprise or was he the favourite?  Who did he beat?  Did he blow the field away with his first jump, or lag before coming through late with his winning distance?  How did his competitors react?  Were they happy for him, or did they resent him?  I know none of these things.  All I saw on my TV and in the newspapers was his winning jump, over and over again.

A man jumping into a sandpit is not that interesting.  What is interesting, in any sport, is the contest, the battle of wills and skills.  For that to be gripping you need to have some sense of who the competitors are, what they've been doing in the lead-up to the competition, how they interact.  Then you need to see the contest, sitting on the edge of your seat as the contenders line up each jump and as the length of each jump is announced.  Your need to feel their joy and disappointment.

This is what I got from reading the story of the long jump at the 1968 Olympics, and of Bob Beamon's amazing jump.  This is what I get when I watch the rugby league through the winter, or the cricket through the summer.  This is what you get when you watch When We Were Kings.  This is what I don't get from recent Australian Commonwealth Games or Olympic coverage.  Surely our broadcasters and news media can do better.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Invention of the Jewish People

I've spent the last couple of weeks working my way through The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, a historian from Tel Aviv University.  You couldn't call it an easy read, as although well-written it's very heavy on scholarship, but it's certainly been worth the effort.

His basic thesis is that the "Jewish people" is not a long-standing, distinct nation or ethnic group, exiled from its homeland and now returning, but a diverse group of people of varying nationalities united by their religion.  The concept of the Jewish nation was, on his reading, created by the Zionists from the mid 19th century onwards in the context of the rise of "nationalist" ethnic histories around the world and most particularly in Europe. 

I'm not in any way qualified to assess his arguments, but I certainly found them compelling.  At risk of oversimplification, let me summarise.

1.  The early stories of Israeli history as presented in the Bible - the story of Abraham and the patriarchs, the Exodus and the kingdoms of David and Solomon - are largely mythical accounts with little supporting archaeological evidence.

2.  The large Jewish communities present throughout the Roman empire, the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe were made up largely of converts, with Judaism active in the task of conversion from the second century BCE until the 4th century CE in the Mediterranean and longer in the Middle East and Central Asia.  The European Jews were largely descendents of these converts, not of ethnic natives of Judea.

3.  There was no historical exile.  None of the major conquests of Judea - the Babylonian conquest, the Roman quashing of Jewish rebellions in 70 and 135 CE, the Arab invasion of the 7th Century - resulted in mass expulsion although in some the urban or military elites were expelled or taken captive.  This means that the pre-1947 inhabitants of Palestine were in part descended from the original Judean population, although of course mixed with various waves of immigrants.

Of course this argument undercuts the basic justification for the Jewish "return" - that they are reclaiming their ancient homeland.  However, his purpose is not to advocate the dismantling of the nation of Israel.  Instead, he is asking his fellow Jews to see their nation differently.  At both the beginning and end of the book, he shows his hand as a strong advocate for liberal democracy, defined as a state in which all the people are equal and sovereign irrespective of their race or religion.  Israel, he says, is not currently a true liberal democracy because it is constitutionally established as a "Jewish state".  Jewish people (including those who have never lived in or even been to Israel) have privileges not available to other residents including those who are Arab, Muslim or Christian, even if these "others" have lived in the land all their lives.  He sees in this distinction a time-bomb waiting to destroy Israel from within.

Naturally this book is controversial in Israel and worldwide.  There's a war on, and this heightens emotions on all sides.  Furthermore, a lot of people have invested themselves emotionally in the Jewish identity of Israel, including a lot of Christians.  Yet aside from the importance of its questions for Israel, it asks us a broader question.  As humans, are we willing to embrace an inclusive identity?  Are we able to say "you and I are one people" even if we have different skin colour, speak different languages and have different religions?  This is an ideal that humans have rarely attained, but our survival in a heavily populated world overburdened with weaponry may depend on us keeping on trying.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Beamonesque

Somewhere around 1971 or 1972 one of my dad's friends gave me a pile of English sports magazines.  It was one of the best presents I ever got, although I think he was just clearing out junk.  There was a set of something which may have been called Football Monthly, and a pile of something that could have been called Sports Illustrated although it didn't have any swimsuit models.  They spanned a period from 1967 through to 1970, including the 1968 Olympics and the 1970 World Cup, both held in Mexico.

I read those magazines over and over again,  partly because I would read anything and partly because I loved sport.  I was still young enough not to be blase about the unfolding drama.  The writers speculated about who would win the World Cup and patriotically promoted England's chances.  Then they gushed about the brilliance of the eventual Brazilian winners, and mourned the moments that cost England.  They ran over the form guide for the blue riband events in the Olympics, then a few months later celebrated the eventual winners.  It was like reading a novel, with the drama unfolding over successive editions.

There were some dramas that I came back to more than others.  I loved the story of Derby County's rise from the lower divisions to become English football champions.  I loved the cheek of American hurdler Willie Davenport, kicked off his college athletics team because he refused to train before claiming Olympic gold.  The headline of the story lamenting the decline of Yorkshire cricket still sticks in my mind: "We Don't Play Cricket for Foon!"

The story that most captured my imagination, though, was the tale of Bob Beamon.  Like Davenport he was sacked from his college athletics team, in his case for refusing to compete against another university in protest against its racist policies.  In the lead-up to the Olympics he was one of the favourites but other jumpers like joint world record holders Ralph Boston (who doubled as Beamon's coach after he lost the support of his college) and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan were more highly regarded.  On his day Beamon could jump as far as anyone, but his technique was variable, he never marked his run-up so he fouled a lot, and he was one of those athletes from whom you never knew what you might get.

True to form, he fouled his first two qualifying jumps before posting a modest distance at his last attempt and making the final.  Then in his first jump in the final he soared out to 8.90 metres, or 29 feet 2 1/2 inches - almost half a metre or two feet past the existing world record.  This improvement was more than twice the total improvements in the world mark over the previous 30 years.  The jump was so long that he landed beyond the range of the photographic measuring equipment and officials had to find a tape measure.  Footage follows of him collapsing in amazement as team-mates translated the metric measurement into feet and inches for him and he realised what he done.   Apparently the English defending champion Lynn Davies told him "You have destroyed this event!"  Beamon watched as the other athletes fought out the silver and bronze.

If this had happened recently your immediate thought would be "performance enhancing drugs", particularly stimulants, to produce this huge one-off lift in performance.  This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that Beamon never again performed close to that level, and it took 23 years for Mike Powell to better the mark. 

Performance enhancing drugs were a huge subject of controversy in the 1960s, and Mexico was the first Olympics to feature drug testing.  My Sports Illustrated  reading introduced me to the death of a British cyclist as the result of clumsy stimulant use, and to the problems of detecting anabolic steroids.  Yet in trawling the internet to catch up on Beamon's story, I didn't come across any suggestion that he was guilty of doping.  He was jumping at altitude, he was a freakish talent, it all came together in one never-to-be-repeated moment of extraordinary acheivement.  His name became synonymous with amazing athletic feats, so much so that the word "Beamonesque" entered the lexicon of sports journalism.

Have you seen or done something Beamonesque this year?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The "Christian Line"

My relative and fellow blogger Luke recently floated the idea of an "Abraham line" - anything in Genesis before Abraham could be seen as mythical, anything after essentially historical.  Intense discussion followed.

I've been thinking about a different kind of line.  In my late teens we had a guest speaker at our youth group on the subject of "cults". By this term, he meant those minority Christian sects who believe things outside Christian orthodoxy - Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventists and so on.  At one point in the discussion he made a distinction - one of these (I forget which) he regarded as Christian, the others not. 

Various books on "cults" were doing the rounds and each of them had a different definition of a cult, and a different list.  Some included the Catholic Church, put in the non-Christian pile because it doesn't teach salvation by grace alone, and because it teaches idolatory in various forms.

All these discussions implied, although they weren't always up front about it, the existence of a "Christian line".  One one side of the line are groups that are Christian, even if they hold some views you disagree with.  On the other side of the line are those who are not Christian.  They may use Christ's name, but their teaching is so far from the truth that the label is a misuse of that name.

Why does this matter to so many people?  Well, the essence of Protestantism lies in two things - its teaching that we are saved by faith alone, not through our own works, and its insistence on the Bible as the sole authoritative source of Christian teaching.  So, if you are saved by faith, what are you saved by faith in?  The simple answer is Christ, but delve a little deeper.  What precisely about Christ are you putting your faith in?  And what sort of faith are we talking about there?

This is where the "Christian line" comes in.  Everyone defines it differently, but there are some common elements.  The idea is that you need to believe that Jesus is God, and that he died to save us.  Hence, versions of Christianity that suggest Jesus is something less than God are not Christian.  On the faith side the answer is more complex.  Often the answer here is that you need to have a classic "conversion experience" - understand that you're a sinner, that you can't save yourself, go to God and ask his forgiveness on the basis of Jesus' death for you.  But there's a lot of variety here - what form of repentence is necessary?  Is it OK to skip one of the steps?  Then on top of this is all the other stuff.  The inerrancy of the Bible.  The existence of hell and the devil.  Rejection of idolatry.  Add or subtract to your taste.

So, my personal view.  What we do through all this is invent a new doctrine of salvation by works, except we are substituting intellectual works for moral ones.  To be regarded as a "Christian" it is essential that you know and assent to certain things and all of them are highly complex - God becoming a man, that God/man's death bringing us forgiveness, the nature of evil, our own moral responsibility.  Each of these concepts are incredibly difficult.  The intellectual work required of us, the worldview changes that are asked, are huge.

Of course, we could simply say that God offers his pardon freely to all.  But to do that we would have to accept that there is no "outside".  We would have to abandon the psychology of belonging, the safety of the in-group.  We would have to give up on millennia of using fear to induce faith, and rely on love alone. 

It's like the joke about the man or woman who goes to heaven and gets the orientation tour from St Peter.  During the tour they come to a huge wall, "so high you can't get over it, so low you can't get under it, so wide you can't get round it".  Peter explains. "That's for the (insert your denomination here).  They like to think they're the only ones here."

Or if you prefer, as Peter Gabriel sings.

How can we be in
When there is no outside?

You may look like we do,
Talk like we do
But you know how it is
You're not one of us!